Common Misconceptions

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Common Misconceptions

1. This is all about Linux vs. Windows

When you think of open source you probably think of the Linux operating system. When you think of operating systems you likely think of Windows (90% of the desktop computers in the world make use of Windows, after all). This is a severely limited view.

Open source has been instrumental in many areas that have nothing to do with Linux. Open source has been instrumental in the development of the internet (Apache web server, etc.). Many large companies make use of open source software (mySQL, etc), and the open source methodology is something you can apply in your businesses whether or not your company ever uses Linux.

Open source is not a religious war of preferences. Our hope is that we will highlight fundamental differences between the theories of open and proprietary development.


2. Open Source Software Isn't Reliable or Supported

If open source isn't reliable, then neither is the Internet because the Internet is predicated on open source software. Every time you go to any web page you are relying on a technology called Domain Name System (DNS). DNS is implemented using software known as BIND which is a completely open source software that was originally developed at U.C. Berkeley.

75% of the e-mail traffic across the web is served up by the sendmail open source e-mail server (and a large percentage of the mail that is not amongst that 75% is served by software that is a derivative of the sendmail program). Again, sendmail was originally developed at U.C. Berkeley.

60% of the web pages served over the internet are served up by the Apache open source web server. Amongst these 60% of web pages are a number of high profile pages. Yahoo! runs on a network of more than 2000 FreeBSD-based (another open source operating system) machines running a modified version of the Apache web server. Yahoo! receives many millions of hits per day.

The software that implements the TCP/IP protocol (the method of ensuring the reception of data sent over the internet) is open source.

Most of the open source software that underpins the internet was written many years ago. Over the intervening years that software has been supported. It's been developed and refined, not by a single company, but by the community of its own user/developers.

Open source represents a paradigm shift in power and control over software from the vendor to the user. The Apache web server is a prime example of this. Its original development team was hired away whole cloth to work on another software project. If the web server which would come to be known as Apache were not open source software it likely would have ended up in the software trash bin like so much other software whose parent company was bought out or otherwise closed up shop. Instead, development of the Apache software was taken over by a group of invested user/developers who coordinated with one another and formed an ad hoc development team to keep a fine piece of software alive for all to use.

Moreover, a survey by the Boston Consulting Group showed that developers working on open source projects are often experienced developers. The research has indicated that 45% of participating developers are professional programmers and that another 20% are system administrators.


3. Big Companies Don't Use Open Source Software

Not so, says Tim O'Reilly, owner of O'Reilly publishing. According to him, his publishing company makes a tidy profit from the sale of books on Perl (a popular open source technology) to participants at professional conferences of all stripes.

The same survey mentioned above showed that 30% of the surveyed developers were being payed by their companies to work on open source projects (Sun and IBM included).

Moreover, e-mail traffic from entities as diverse as large corporations of all kinds to large banking institutions all carry the earmarks of the sendmail e-mail server.

The reason that you don't hear about this is because the companies that want to publicly admit that they make use of open source software are few and far between. The reason why seems to be two fold. First, many companies see the use of open source software as a competitive edge that needs to be protected. Second, many companies see the use of open source software as a dirty little secret. As we'll see, open source software most benefits the user, but it also benefits the small business upstart that large businesses see as a threat (in short, it levels the playing field). So, with one hand, large corporations are writing code using open source software, with the other they seek to limit the spread of open source technology as a viable alternative.


4. Open Source Is Hostile to Intellectual Property

The use of open source technology requires that aggregate technology based on open source products carry the same provisions in its license as were present in the original. Nevertheless, some open source technology initiatives allow for code extensions that are proprietary.

But ask yourself this: to the extent that open source doesn't support intellectual property right, why are companies so reliant on intellectual property. There are no secrets in software. There is nothing that you can long hide from anyone interested in knowing it. The idea that you are selling a particular solution to a software need is a falsehood both because your solution is not unique and because anyone could have thought of it. If you are not selling a secret solution, then what are you selling. You are selling a brand. That's what people buy. People buy the expectation of a good product and good service. The best way to deliver on that is open source.


5. Open Source Is All About Licenses

Open source is about a particular design philosophy and methodology. Licenses are only important in that they give formal assurances that the efforts of all members of the development community will be equally rewarded. In other words, no company or start-up can profit from the open source software to the detriment of the rest of the development community.

The truly unique thing about open source development is the distributed method by which software is developed. Open source development projects have pioneered certain techniques to foster these kinds of efforts. These include, mailing lists, version control software, peer review, discussion and voting on features, and meaningful user feedback and participation.

Is distributed development important? We think so. In the list of the great scientific and technological achievements in the last century, most have come as a direct result of an immediate external threat (nuclear power, space exploration, etc). The list of significant achievements that don't fall into this category are few and far between. The one outstanding exception is the Internet (even though it was born of a DARPA defense initiative it is now a much different beast). The heart of the Internet is distributed knowledge. We do not think this is a coincidence. To the contrary, the success of the Internet is predicated on its distributed nature.


6. The Open Source Community Represents Thousands of Developers Working for Free

You cannot expect that just because you make your software open source that a community of developers will immediately flock together to work on it. Strong open source developer communities are a conglomeration of users that are invested in the software that they are working on. If you want a strong developer community then you have to engage your community of users. From this larger community the best you can hope for is a small subset of contributors and an even smaller handful of active developers.

What might be better than starting your own developer community would be to join and invest your time in an open source initiative similar to the software solution that you need.


7. Open Source Only Matters to Developers

It's true that users don't often know how their software works. This does not mean that they think that all software solutions are equal. Far from it. Users may not know what they want, but they know it when they see it (and conversely, they know what they don't like when they see that as well). The best way to provide users with the solution they desire is through open source software.

Open source software is software in the free market. The free market brings benefits that include: lower prices as a result of competition, freer innovation, and specialization to meet small niche markets.


8. Free Software Means No Profit

Absolutely not. There is no better way to wrest control of a market away from the biggest players than by the use of open source approaches. Open source is a disruptive technology. It reduces the barrier to entry to work in a particular market, it strongly supports new solutions, and it expands the market in general.

In short, open source development favors the little guy. You can see from this how large corporations with effective monopolies over entire markets might be afraid of open source.

Open source represents a paradigm shift. It isn't the technology that you should be selling. Leave that as free and responsive to the needs of the users as possible. Instead, sell the services that are required by users of your technology.


9. Open Source Development Ceases When Developers See There Is Money to Be Made

This myth relies on the idea that developers don't see a return on their investment in time and energy working on the software solution. If this were true, then the development would never get off the ground. In fact, open source development relies on invested developer/users who are acting in their own self-interest in making available a better solution to their software needs.


10. Open Source is New and Behind Commercial Development

Open source has been around since the early 1960s when the very earliest research into modern computer software was being pursued at research institutions like MIT, Stanford, and U.C. Berkeley.

So, why the myth? If you think open source is Linux and everything else is Windows then you can see where you might get this idea. Its true that Linux distributions are chasing to recreate Windows like environments. (Still, Linux and its parent operating system Unix has been around longer than Windows, but for a long time didn't see the need to compete directly with Windows.)

But, open source is not just Linux. We talked about the pervasive use of open source technology on the Internet already. In addition, the most thrilling development area in computers is small devices (cell phones, PDAs, Blackberry, etc). Open source is leaps and bounds ahead of all other software solutions for devices such as these (called "embedded devices" as a whole).

Moreover, software development is less and less about the desktop and more about web-based applications (Amazon, Ebay, E-trade, Google Docs, etc). These are not all purely open source, but they are all squarely based on open source technology. "The network is the computer."



External Links:

http://www.dreamsongs.com/IHE/IHE-29.html

http://www.oreillynet.com/pub/a/oreilly/opensource/news/myths_1199.html

http://1vc.typepad.com/soaring_on_ridgelift/2006/08/open_source_sof.html

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